Frank Lucas, aka the American Gangster, died last May and a true personality left this earth when he did. I researched and interviewed Frank in 2006 while filming the very first Gangland for The History Channel. My late husband, Jeff Felshman, had a little trouble with heroin during 1970s NYC (https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/the-killer-inside-me/Content?oid=911383) and readily advised me on the players, like Frank and his counterpart in Harlem, Nicky Barnes.
Frank was delighted he got a revived interest in his story more than 30 years after his star had subsided. In the picture, you can see he was wheelchair bound, much of which was due to diabetes. In his heyday, he was a real ladies man and he still had some of that charm left over. But he also had a flaw when it came to his story. I won’t be speaking out of school, since the show aired in 2007, but I will reveal what that flaw was here.
Frank had told his story so many times over the years, he either believed some major transgressions of fact, or more likely, needed the inaccuracies to avoid facing the consequences. (On the other hand, diving in to do research about Frank, I found time and again the media had also perpetuated the lie) Frank never went to jail for his vast crimes – not because he was crafty and eluded justice – but because he colluded with authorities to take down his opponents. It was also a fiction that Frank had heroin shipped from Vietnam during the war in the caskets of fallen soldiers, although several criminal colleagues in the service did help him smuggle heroin into the US from Southeast Asia.
Denzel Washington did a phenomenal job of playing Frank Lucas in the film The American Gangster and what he really got right about Frank was he an amazing businessman who, if he had been legitimate, could have made a marvelous fortune and devoted his intellect to innovation. Instead, more than 650 heroin addicts a year found themselves dying on NYC streets during Frank’s tenure.
Russell Crowe, again, was admirable as Richie Roberts, but when I met Richie, his relationship with Frank was far more complicated in reality than any Hollywood simplification would do justice to.
When the show was set to air on November 1, 2007, Frank called me a few days beforehand. He said, “Tracy…did you f#ck me?”…as if he was asking whether I’d included all my research in the show, all of which I had asked him to speak to during his interview. He asked me a second time and I was trying to figure out how to answer. So when he asked me a third time, I decided to make my response tongue-in-cheek: “Frank, I promise I would have kissed you before I f#cked you.” Not long after, he invited me to a barbecue at his home in Newark, NJ. I demurred…
The program came and went, more for people who wanted gangster porn than those interested in righting history. Over the next several months, Frank Lucas was interviewed for dozens of programs. He started his own clothing line. He was living the life.
After our show aired, a couple of times I got calls from producers who were scared to negotiate with Frank about his fees. To one, he told them I had paid $25,000 for his interview, hoping to get the same again. I told the producer, at The History Channel, we could not pay for interviews and he did not receive compensation. You have to admire his endless moxie.
I know there was a lot to be learned during my relationship with Frank and I will always harken back to the time fondly, however stressful it may have been. RIP, Frank Lucas.